Progress. That’s what farmers continue to make as they implement practices to improve our state’s water quality through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS).
New DNR evidence
The latest evidence of progress, and a solid one, came earlier this month when the DNR released its annual report on impaired waters in the state.
For the first time in the report’s more than two-decade history, there was a decline in the number of impaired bodies of water in the state that require a watershed plan, also called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The decline was 6%. The report also showed a 7% decline in the overall number of water body impairments.
In addition, the DNR said it removed 99 bodies of water from its list of impaired waters that needed a watershed plan. That was the most the DNR has ever removed during a two-year reporting cycle.
The reasons for being removed from this list vary. It can be that a general watershed plan has been developed for local residents to refine and implement. (There were 47 bacteria-reduction plans developed by the DNR in one major river basin.) Or it could be that there’s been an improvement in the water or that new data has been collected or incorrect numbers were amended.
Those are impressive numbers, and while the job is far from complete, they show that collaboration is working and the trends appear to be moving in the right direction.
Progress on phosphorus
A recent ISU update on the INRS shows that decades of conservation work on Iowa farms has slashed phosphorus losses from Iowa fields by 22% since the 1980s and early 1990s. That study’s data dovetails with 2015 data that shows soil erosion in Iowa is down 28% over the past three decades. Both pieces of data are proof that Iowa is on the right track on phosphorus and close to meeting the 29% reduction goal outlined in the strategy.
To trim nitrogen losses, farmers are using an array of innovative and scientifically verified practices outlined in the INRS. A key one is planting cover crops, which ISU research shows can reduce nitrogen losses by approximately 30% or more.
Last year’s cover crop numbers are still being verified, but the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council showed that in 2018 farmers planted more than 2 million acres of cover crops — a 26% increase from the previous year and an astonishing increase when you consider that the state’s farmers planted fewer than 10,000 acres of cover crops a decade earlier.
Farmers are also ramping up their use of other tools to reduce nitrogen losses.
Iowa farmers are showing tremendous initiative in learning about the science of improving water quality. Last year, more than 540 collaborative outreach events drew more than 50,000 attendees.
Local, state and federal governments are also pitching in on the efforts to improve water quality. The total state and federal funding for all INRS-related efforts — including education, outreach, research and practice implementation — was at least $560 million, a 9% increase from the previous year.
Farmers, and the entire American economy, have endured a difficult and turbulent year in 2020. But I’m confident that Iowa farmers will continue their efforts to improve water quality in 2021 and beyond.
We’re not done. We know that water quality improvements will require time and sustained effort. At the same time, we will continue our long-standing efforts to reduce soil erosion. But by working together — farmers, businesses, municipalities, government officials and others, we are producing verifiable results, and through the INRS, it’s clear we are on the right track.